As college students juggle classes, tests, papers, projects, sports, clubs and countless other obligations, few would be eager to invest their valuable time in standing in line for a meal. Fortunately for students at Messiah College, they can opt out of the long lines at mealtime by ordering online before they arrive.
“Students get so little time in between classes so if they can order from their phone or laptop as they’re leaving class, the food is ready when they get here. That way we don’t get 50 people all at once and it’s a little more staggered,” said Jennifer Whitcomb, operations manager in dining services. “Not everyone uses it but I think for those that do, it’s been really helpful.”
Messiah students can now preorder their meals regardless of choosing to eat at the Union Café or the Falcon Express Snackshop. With the exception of pizza, all of their food is made fresh to order, which clearly can take some time if several customers arrive in a short window. Now, those who preorder can arrive during the preparation or shortly after, picking up their to-go box labeled with their name and order with no lag time.
Faculty and staff at the school have little downtime themselves and the feedback from them on having the system in place has been extremely positive.
“Our staff that get half-hour lunches can now order before or during the walk up, get their food and still have time to eat and not be rushing,” Whitcomb said. “I’ve heard repeatedly from faculty and staff that they love to place and order and get it when they can so they don’t have to waste time waiting in line for it. It’s designed to be what they want and when they want it.”
What is perhaps most impressive about the online ordering system is that it has been designed specifically toward the needs of Messiah’s dining services. Four computer science students started the initiative to add this service as they searched for a senior project idea.
The students originally wanted to design an iPhone app that would work with the current program to order remotely. When Whitcomb said the program was incapable of handing the task, the project shifted to developing an entirely new web-based system that could.
“We had some great seniors who just said ‘we can do that’ to nearly everything that wanted it to do,” Whitcomb said. “It gave us a whole new level of flexibility and it was easy for them to convert that to something that was easy for the entire campus to access.”
Online ordering was something dining services had looked into beforehand but in shopping around, couldn’t settle on something that met all the criteria they needed. Instead of adapting their service to an existing program, Messiah was able to adapt the program to the needs of their service. The result was an easy to use system that is adaptable and easy to update when specialty items are only available at certain times. This way, meal-goers won’t be disappointed if they order something that is no longer an option.
“There’s not a lot out there that gives you the flexibility that we have now. We wanted something that was easy to use and all of our supervisors and managers can update whenever necessary,” Whitcomb said. “We have a list of ingredients where if we run out of something, any item that includes the ingredient can be removed from the menu. It’s so user friendly, I can install an entirely new menu without assistance.”
The system is not complete though as the department continues to work toward adding additional services to its patrons. One of the original seniors, Phil Hess `10, has since graduated and lives nearby. He now works as a contractor to provide support for the program and is working to incorporate a new system that would allow people to text their orders as well, instead of needing an Internet source to place the order.
Hess is also working on another option that students could place their order well in advance for a time later in the day, if they know exactly when they will have time to pick up their food. Although those updates are not yet available, Whitcomb believes that students, faculty and staff are all pleased so far in taking notice of the changes.
“The transition has been pretty seamless,” said Whitcomb, noting that she thinks these services will continue to become more popular as people grow accustomed to using them. “I think that as students and staff become more busy and involved in things, they’re going to realize it’s an easy thing to be able to get the food that you want without waiting in a long line.”
It’s not just those on campus taking note of the measures being implemented to improve the dining service at Messiah. The National Association of College and University Food Services has also taken an interest in the services provided there.
In 2011, Messiah received a Loyal E. Horton award for dining excellence as they brought home the silver distinction for medium sized schools for Retail Sales-Single Concept. In determining their winners, NACUFS examined the overall product delivered to customers, including menu and meal, facility design, marketing and nutrition and wellness.
In some other considerations, judges also look to determine that “there is an overall ‘wow’ factor in the concept.” Including the online ordering in the proposal may have given the judges all the “wow” they needed.
“We’re judged as a comprehensive unit but they look at all of those things,” Whitcomb said. “Online ordering was a part of that. It’s something new and different that really isn’t out there a whole lot at the moment.”
Story written by our colleagues at Dick Jones Communications, a national media placement firm that helps Messiah College with some of its public affairs work.